We don't want to be special now

Once, gays prided themselves on being different. Today, they want to become part of the establishmen

Time was that homosexuals saw themselves as exiles, doomed (in Quentin Crisp's extravagant description) to "stand in the street, knee-deep in the snows of rejection", and "press our cold noses to the cold window-panes of establishment". Then the climate improved, to the point where these outsiders bivouacked quite comfortably in the open, and could be heard extolling the virtues of unlimited fresh air. But now it's hard to tell who's inside and who's outside the establishment - the situation which advocates of Clause 28 find so alarming, and others see as evidence of a mutual maturity.

All minority movements have a separatist aspect and an assimilationist one, but for some time the assimilationist wing of the gay movement has been in the ascendant. Even Peter Tatchell, the hate- figure of British gay politics, is (whisper it) an assimilationist of a sort. He doesn't say what many activists would have said in the early days of gay liberation: that only self-hating homosexuals would be involved in the armed services in the first place - or caught up in Conservative politics or organised religion - and that they have no one to blame for their troubles but themselves. He calls on the institutions to acknowledge the constituencies they treat so poorly.

Gay liberation in America modelled itself on the struggle for civil rights and on the women's movement, but in this country it was more generally part of a rebellious youth politics. It involved turning a lot of the world upside-down. It's fascinating to compare the worldviews of the pre-liberation New London Spy, from 1966, and the second edition of Alternative London, 1971.

The contributor to the New London Spy refers with self-lacerating cynicism to "a few people with business acumen realising that a cellar room, sparsely furnished but equipped with a juke-box and fruit machine, and serving coffee and Coke, will be a lucrative means of attracting quite a lot of queers who want to continue the hunt after the bars have closed". Homosexual reality is perceived to contain nothing outside "the hunt". The assumption seems to be that there is no overlap between the groups "people with business acumen" and the "queers" to be fleeced by them.

Five years later, an entire new philosophy is in place. According to Alternative London, "Homosexual freaks in GLF [the Gay Liberation Front] do not use the usual pubs and clubs that straight homosexuals use, simply because they refuse to subscribe to the plastic exploitative scene created and perpetuated there." The term "freak" has become a badge of honour, and doctrinaire contempt - that curiously wounding "straight homosexuals" - is reserved for those who don't connect up their sexuality with a rejection of institutions and values.

By this philosophy, homosexuals should not seek the right to marry because marriage is beneath them and their critique of the norms. No one should want to perpetuate gender inequality and obsolete roles by marrying. Any gay approximation to the couple was frowned on. "Family" in any conventional sense was a dirty word, a betrayal of countercultural solidarity.

In the seventies and eighties, the "plastic exploitative scene" had its heyday, though there began to emerge gay businesses that did more than tap into a lucrative market. Gay men discovered the joys of role-playing on their own terms. Gay News closed down in 1983, and after that Britain had no national gay paper that didn't depend for revenue on adverts from pubs and clubs. This was just before a sexually transmitted epidemic started to make its mark.

With the Aids crisis, the gay community had to live up to its self-description, and the abstract solidarity of its slogans. For the first time, there was a whole organised network of volunteers - a sort of alternative (or complementary) social services. One small change from that period seems especially significant in retrospect. At the beginning of the health crisis, a patient's "next of kin" corresponded to the legal definition.

Many sick people whose adult lives had taken them very far from their families suffered, when relatives had automatic privileges outsiders did not. But soon there was a change of policy, and your next of kin for hospital purposes became who you said it was. A tattooed nun might now gain admission to intensive care, while your mother was asked to come back at a more convenient time.

The American gay movement has always been more fluent than the British in producing controversies and manifestoes, from the Stonewall riot itself to the disputed practise of "outing", and we have as often as not followed an imported agenda. The nineties saw a mini-boom in tracts with a conservative viewpoint. The keynote was full participation in society, with the emphasis on responsibilities as much as rights. To be more precise: the emphasis was on the right to responsibilities.

There was Conduct Unbecoming, Randy Shilts's history of gays in the military, and there was Andrew Sullivan's Virtually Normal (Sullivan is British by birth but moved to America, since he quaintly believes no openly gay person can have a non-sectarian career here). It's easy to forget that the Clinton administration in its early days set itself to integrate open homosexuals into the armed services, greatly underestimating the opposition of vested interests. Shilts's book is a bizarre read, since he seems to have no reservation about any aspect of the American military except its refusal to admit open homosexuals.

Sullivan has a wider agenda for homosexuals: not just the right to serve, but the right to marry. The first goal seems to have been achieved in this country, with less compromise than in America, but the second is elusive, perhaps even delusive. The very name of Foucault, the French philosopher who was an early casualty of Aids (he died in 1984), is synonymous with extremity and nihilism for Sullivan and many others, but Foucault suggested that gay people would be wiser to seek a less direct way of finding a protected niche for themselves in society. He recommended that they appropriate a less central mechanism for conferring status than marriage: adoption.

His suggestion hasn't been taken up in any large way, but the essential validity of his insight that institutions other than marriage are less heavily patrolled was shown by the recent case in which a gay male couple in this country acquired twin babies from a surrogate mother in the US.

It proved to be easier - very much easier - to get two men's names on a birth certificate than to get them into a register of marriages, not because paternity is regarded as unimportant but because the sudden pouncing on it was so unexpected. Newspapers used to denouncing men who flee their responsibilities as parents, or defending them from the Child Support Agency, had to change gear for this unprecedented event.

Gay people like these two and many others of both sexes, whose arrangements are private and don't hit the headlines, may be customising their particular versions of family, but the idea of family out there in the culture has also evolved hugely over the decades, to the point almost of being unrecognisable.

Single motherhood, for instance, like supermarket taramasalata, now exists in both Economy and Luxury versions - women for whom their children are economic burdens, and women for whom they are trophies. Call the two tribes the Graces and the Cybills, after their archetypes in television sitcom - blue-collar Grace (Brett Butler) in Grace Under Pressure and upscale eponymous Cybill (Cybill Shepherd) in Cybill.

To be a single mother is now a valid celebrity choice. Madonna may have become pregnant with little Lourdes by a sexual partner, but he was as much like the baby's father in conventional terms as a disposable camera is like a 1950s box Brownie. Jodie Foster, meanwhile, has mutated into a mother without revealing anything about the means of transmission - the father or donor.

These are obviously special cases, but the shift in the assumptions they dramatise is pervasive. You don't have to look further than Walt Disney's Toy Story 2, just released, for corroboration. There are two levels to the action of the film, and a main character corresponding to each, the boy Andy and his toy cowboy Woody, who comes to life (like all the other toys) when the humans leave the room. Andy lives with his mother and little sister, while Woody is the decision-maker of the group of Andy's toys.

In Toy Story 2, Woody is stolen by an unscrupulous collector, and comes face to face with a group that has a different claim on him. There's Jessie the cowgirl, Stinky Pete the prospector and Bullseye the horse. Now that the unscrupulous collector has a complete set, he can sell it to a Japanese museum. But if Woody makes his escape, as he wants to do, the others will go back into storage. So what will Woody do?

It's a conflict between family as a chosen peer group and family as a fact of nature. Complementarity - we're a team - against completeness - we're a set. Set family can be brought over into team family, but there's no traffic possible in the other direction.

Team family in the film is linked with maturity and acceptance of loss (since sooner or later Andy will outgrow toys altogether), set family with the denial of change - that museum in Japan.

Neither in the original film or in its sequel is there any reference to a father for Andy, but nor is his absence referred to (there's no pathos of the ET sort). In the first Toy Story, Andy has a birthday, his mom moves house and then Christmas comes along - all occasions likely to involve even the most feckless of dads - but he never got a mention. It's as if fathers are so optional an ingredient in family life that no one notices their absence.

Life may not be much like Toy Story 2, but a father whose marriage breaks up may experience an uncomfortable transition between the two versions of family sketched in the toy plot of the film. His parenthood is now a matter not of entitlement, but performance. Ironically, his playing of the role may become more scrupulous - the workaholic who would not have dreamt of taking a day off for his child's birthday now scheduling it months in advance. Family is as family does.

So if gay people seem to be knocking on a few doors that they once would have walked past, this may be due partly to a decline in the appeal of identity politics. Defining ourselves by our differences needn't be the most interesting way to live. There's a risk of thinking of ourselves (Quentin Crisp again) as special people, "rather than as ordinary people with a special way of spending their evenings". But it's also true that the doors to be knocked on, and the people behind them, have changed at least as much.